Theodosius and the Goths I

The psychological impact of Adrianople was immediate. Pagans at once interpreted the defeat as punishment for the neglect of the traditional gods. In distant Lydia, the pagan rhetor Eunapius of Sardis composed what has been termed an instant history, to demonstrate that the empire had headed inexorably towards the disaster of Adrianople from the moment of Constantine’s conversion. For Eunapius, it seems, the Roman empire itself had ended at Adrianople: ‘Strife, when it has grown, brings forth war and murder, and the children of murder are ruin and the destruction of the human race. Precisely these things were perpetrated during Valens’ reign’. From a distance of longer years, and with considerably greater penetration, Ammianus made the same argument, choosing the disaster as the terminal point for his history and loading it with coded venom towards the Christians on whom he, like his hero Julian, blamed the empire’s decline. No Christian response was immediately forthcoming, though Nicene Christians seem to have blamed Adrianople on divine punishment for the homoean beliefs of Valens, and Jerome ended his Chronicle in 378, just as Ammianus did his history. This dialogue of blame and excuse, the pagan side of which is now largely lost to us thanks to suppression by the Christian winners, went on throughout the fifth century, exacerbated by Alaric’s sack of Rome. After all, how could the barbarian scourge have stung so painfully if God or the gods were not murderously displeased?

For the modern scholar, too, the battle of Adrianople is a turning point of major importance, though we seek historical rather than divine explanations. The causes of the disaster lay not in any single event but in a series of human errors. The aftermath of the battle, however, represents a new phase in the history of both the Goths and the Roman empire. In this new phase, the historian’s framework of analysis changes dramatically. We can sum up the core of the change quite simply: until 378, Gothic history was fundamentally shaped by experience of the Roman empire. The central fact of Gothic existence was the Roman empire looming on the other side of the frontier, and much of the political and social life of the Goths can be explained by reference to their relations with Rome. For the empire, by contrast, the Goths were one of dozens of barbarian neighbours, and by no means the most important. They were a marginal force even in the political life of the empire, and invisible to its social and institutional history. After 378, however, the Goths were a constant and central presence in the political life of the empire. Even though the material damage of Adrianople was repaired more rapidly than anyone at the time could have imagined possible, tens of thousands of Goths now lived permanently inside the Roman frontiers. In a very short time, that fact profoundly altered the way in which the imperial government dealt not just with the Goths, but with barbarian peoples more generally. Before long, imperial institutions from the army to the court changed in response to the challenges of the new situation, and the social world of many regions was profoundly altered. In many ways, the Gothic settlement in the aftermath of Adrianople laid the foundation of the new and changed world of the fifth century.

Julius and the Asian Massacre

Contemporaries found making sense of the disaster a slow and painful process, but practical responses could not wait. In the Balkans, the immediate aftermath of Adrianople was chaos, just as one would have expected. Gratian halted at Sirmium, where he was joined by those generals who had escaped the slaughter. He went no further east. The Goths laid siege to Adrianople itself without success, then pressed on to Constantinople where they were again repulsed, in part thanks to a troop of Arab auxiliaries so bloodthirsty that they terrified even the triumphant Goths. Not until 381, three years after the battle, did most of the Balkan peninsula again become safe for Roman travellers. In the interim, to those outside the region, Thrace produced nothing but rumour. So confused was the situation that, for the latter part of 378 and much of 379, the eastern provinces had basically to operate without reference to any emperor at all. Government ticked over in the hands of those imperial officials who were in place in August 378, and they were left to make their own decisions as best they could. Most of all, they had to decide how to stop the Balkan unrest spreading into the rest of the eastern empire.

This was a real possibility, as is demonstrated by events in Asia Minor. There, and perhaps in other parts of the East, riots broke out amongst native Goths in various cities. The exact outline of the episode, and the extent of it, has always been unclear, because Ammianus and Zosimus, the latter relying on Eunapius, give very different accounts. Ammianus says that in the immediate aftermath of Adrianople, the magister militum of the East, Julius, forestalled the eastward spread of the Balkan troubles by systematically calling up all the Gothic soldiers from the ranks of the army and having them massacred outside the eastern cities. Ammianus favoured this approach as the correct way of dealing with barbarians, but when he wrote – in the 380s – he may have been holding up the bracing harshness of Julius as a reproof of the emperor Theodosius’ Gothic treaty of 382. Zosimus tells a different story. According to him, when Julius found himself unable to contact the emperor or anyone in Thrace, he instead sought the advice of the Constantinopolitan senate, which gave him the authority to act as he thought best. With that licence, he lured the Goths of Asia Minor into the cities and there had them massacred in the confines of urban streets from which they could not escape. Zosimus, moreover, suggests that these slaughtered Goths were not soldiers, but rather the teenage hostages who had been handed over to the Roman government in 376 to guarantee their parents’ good behaviour. Finally, Zosimus dates the massacre not to the immediate aftermath of Adrianople, but rather to 379.

Although the patent contradiction between these accounts is often resolved by accepting Ammianus over Zosimus, additional evidence suggests an alternative. Two sermons of Gregory of Nyssa, the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea, mention depredations by Scythians in Asia Minor in 379. This corroboration of Zosimus points the way forward: Ammianus, for polemical purposes, has telescoped a long process into a single swift move by Julius, while Zosimus preserves the longer time frame and the sense of uncertainty that followed a battle which left no one in real control of the eastern empire. What probably happened is that Julius, knowing that there were Goths in the local army units as well as any number of young Gothic hostages of very nearly military age and prone like all teenage males to violence, decided to prevent any repetition of the Thracian debacle. He began with the forts in the frontier provinces – the castra mentioned by Ammianus – but his actions were either meant to, or interpreted as meaning to, prefigure a systematic massacre of Goths in the eastern provinces. As word spread, those Goths who were in a position to riot did so, and were killed in large numbers across Asia Minor and Syria.

The Accession of Theodosius

That so many – presumably quite innocent – Goths should have been done away with in this fashion emphasizes as nothing else can the scale of the dangers, and also the scale of the confusion. For us, looking back dispassionately and trying to work out what happened, it is easy to forget how hopeless of repair the whole situation must have seemed. But we can only explain the failure of Gratian and his generals to coordinate a systematic response if we remember the depth of the shock that Adrianople caused. Rather than system or coordination, survivors switched to habitual, automatic responses to deal with the crisis. We have seen this already with the response of Julius and, presumably, other eastern officials as well. Most of them carried on doing what they normally did, the state continuing to function without any clear notion of what it was continuing for. Gratian’s immediate reaction was a similarly conditioned response: with the Balkans in chaos and the Goths running riot, he turned not to the immediate problem, but rather to the Alamanni, a foe that was always worth fighting and against whom he had a reasonable chance of success. As we saw, some Alamanni had attacked Gaul the minute they heard that Gratian intended to march east. Given Valens’ catastrophic failure, Gratian must have felt it necessary to hurry back to the West lest equivalent disaster strike there.

Into this vacuum stepped Theodosius, a thirty-three-year-old Spanish aristocrat and the son of one of Valentinian I’s great generals, also named Theodosius. The younger Theodosius would go on to become augustus and, as with all emperors, our sources are coloured by retrospective judgements. Just as Valens was indelibly marked by the catastrophe of Adrianople, so Theodosius was forever after associated with the defence of Nicene orthodoxy and the suppression of paganism. In the ecclesiastical histories of the fifth century, Theodosius became Theodosius the Great, a name which he still bears in the casual usage of modern historians. The appellation was bestowed more for his pliability in theological matters than for any signal achievements in public policy, but the image of greatness seeped into every other corner of his reign as well. Thus a recent biography of Theodosius is subtitled ‘the empire at bay’, conjuring the image of a wounded empire, turning with its last strength to savage the attackers besetting it on all sides. However compelling that image might be as theatre, it is hardly in accord with the reality of an emperor who never won a major battle under his own command and who rarely campaigned at all after 381. However easy it is to let later ecclesiastical authors colour our impression of Theodosius’ greatness, the difficulties of his early reign are suggested by the darkness that shrouds his accession to the purple.

Theodosius had in the early 370s stood on the verge of a prominent military career: he was dux Moesiae, a rather senior post for so young a man, no doubt secured for him by his father’s influence. In 374, as dux, he had won a victory over the Sarmatians. In 376, however, the elder Theodosius fell victim to the palace intrigues that followed Valentinian’s death. His eponymous son chose prudent retirement to family estates in Spain, lest he too die by the hand of an executioner. Isolated in his Spanish exile, Theodosius was abandoned by most of his former friends, a man irrevocably damaged by his father’s disgrace, or so it seemed. It is thus very hard for us to imagine why Gratian should have chosen to call him out of retirement in this moment of crisis and send him to deal with the Balkan emergency. In fact, only one source – the ecclesiastical history of Theoderet of Cyrrhus – records this summons of Theodosius by Gratian, and its accuracy has correctly been impugned. Theoderet wrote his ecclesiastical history in the later fifth century, when the legend of Theodosius’ greatness and orthodoxy were firmly established as true. Part of his story of Theodosius’ accession is palpably fictionalized. Far more significant is the silence of nearly contemporary sources, particularly the orators Themistius and Pacatus, on the route by which Theodosius climbed to power. Had that path been clean and simple, both panegyrists – and particularly the propagandizing Themistius – would have trumpeted its details in full. Instead, they veil in a deep silence the relationship of Gratian and Theodosius in the immediate aftermath of Adrianople. A more plausible scenario, which makes good sense in light of the period’s confusion, has recently been suggested. Already in 378, when the extent of the Balkan violence and Gratian’s plan to march east were generally known, Theodosius and his remaining friends at court spotted an ideal opportunity to engineer his return to favour. Making much of his Balkan experience and his now-distant success as dux Moesiae, they secured his reappointment to that post either shortly before or immediately after Adrianople. Theodosius probably campaigned in the eastern Balkans during late 378, but achieved nothing decisive before his proclamation as augustus on 19 January 379.


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